Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tough-minded man gets mushy

Update: Welcome Cowgirls and Cowboys from Mike's Roundup at C&L! Make yourselves at home! (and thanks for the shoutout, TG)

Animation from Edward Muybridge's Descriptive Zoopraxography (1893), via Wikimedia Commons.
The simple, shapely format Brooks adopted for Part I of his "Summer Reading—Not" list, a list of four items bookended by an opening and a concluding paragraph, has turned out to be too hard to sustain, and this morning's Part II is just a mess, but there's something interesting going on.

He begins with a Brooksian dichotomy between "Athens" and "Jerusalem", the former for books that will improve you by firing up your external ambition, the latter by cultivating your spiritual side. But he only has one Athens book in mind, really, Thucydides's [jump]
history of the Peloponnesian War, for its hero Pericles, who more than any other person supervised the transformation of classical Athens from a democracy to an autocratically ruled imperial power, with a war of choice he brought on in a classic (literally!) wag-the-dog move as his high-handed and dubious management of the city's finances was coming under question.

Yes, it seems to be a tribute to Imaginary George W. Bush and the Eternal Republican Ascendancy he didn't create (the Athenian empire, of course, degenerated through and beyond the war, until it was ready to drop into the arms of Alexander the Great 18 years after Pericles died). Brooksy goes on to reinforce the point with quick references to biographies of Alexander Hamilton (the "conservative" side of the Revolution), Theodore Roosevelt (a dab hand at starting wars when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he was really better at avoiding them after he became president), and Winston Churchill, and then bursts alarmingly into a long quote from W.H. Auden, eight lines separated by paragraph returns the way a high school term paper might be set in 14-point type. I'll get back to the Auden in a moment.

Jerusalem is represented first by the Confessions of Saint Augustine of Hippo, apparently the very same book he was pushing what seems like just yesterday (in fact it was a couple of weeks ago) as providing a model for how you could develop a deep understanding of the feelings of a teenage girl who gets pregnant—no, I still don't get it—garnished with some random Christian and Jewish self-help books like gribenes sprinkled on your pork chop, and then he turns very oddly to an ecstatic and (if memory serves) slightly schlocky romance, Scott Spencer's Endless Love.

And finally winds up with George Eliot's Middlemarch, the tale of a girl who didn't get pregnant but instead married an idiotic, overbearing pedant with the idea that as a mere girl she could not contribute directly to the betterment of the world but could assist a Great Man in his work, with a bunch more quotation and paragraph breaks. Brooks seems to be laboring under the misapprehension that it is Dorothea's fault that her first marriage doesn't work out, as he chooses this as one of his favorite quotes:
“She was always trying to be what her husband wished, and never able to repose on his delight in what she was.”
(In fact Reverend Casaubon failed to take any delight in what she was, being an irredeemable fool, which was the basic problem.)

The whole piece really doesn't make sense, but there is this one thing: Brooks apparently believes that the Auden poem, "Leap Before You Look" (what a great title for a country-western song!), is all about Great Men and their readiness to take risks, maybe (since it was written in December 1940) Sir Winston himself, as a kind of WWII counterpart to "If" or "Invictus", but it isn't; Auden had been received into the communion of the Church of England a couple of months earlier, in October (after having unchurched himself years before), and the poem is addressed to his unbeliever lover, Chester Kallman, an invitation to a conversion.

Augustine's confession is the story of a conversion to Christianity too (while Dorothea Brooke goes the opposite direction, I suppose, from the chokingly dry religion and oppression of her first marriage to—spoiler alert!—joyous secularism and equality in her second), and what I'm wondering is something I think I've wondered before (can't find the post, though): is Brooks really returning to his first love, Old Mr. Buckley, and taking that leap before you look himself? Into the Roman church, I'd think, or its Antonin Scalia branch, given the unsuitabilities of the current Pope and the current Archbishop of Canterbury alike to have the care of the Brooksian soul—is Brooks turning Christian?
That Auden poem, by the way, may be on a silly subject—I think that Anglicanism was a bit of a pose, of Eliot emulation and an understandable fondness for Episcopal drag—but it's a great, great piece of work:

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.
The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.
The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.
Much can be said for social savoir-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.
A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.
                                                            December 1940

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